Monday, June 09, 2014

Geek movies of 2014

We’ve had three super-hero movies so far this year. As I am somewhat a geek, a quick rundown on how they were:
Captain America: The Winter Soldier – I was never the biggest fan of the first Cap movie, The First Avenger. I thought once he became Cap the movie got pointedly less interesting. I loathed the musical number and thought more time should have been spent showing how he was a legend during the war. And Bucky’s death wasn’t well done.
But I heard rumbling in the geek community that The Winter Solider was going to be something special. And they were right. It’s up there with the first Iron Man and Avengers for Marvel Studio movies.
Very loosely based on the Ed Brubaker/Steve Epting storyline, it features Captain dealing with spies, conspiracies and the costs of freedom. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Cap in the comics. He tends to be handled badly more often than not. But the run with Brubaker as writer (and a series of top notch artists) got to the very heart of what makes him work – that he’s a deeply principled and ethical man who often struggles trying to make those beliefs work in a world that doesn’t always share them.
He believes in the American Dream, even when so many seem to have forgotten it. The fact that he’s a pain in the ass to people who use patriotism as a scoundrel’s defence his part of his appeal.
And that’s what we have in The Winter Soldier. Cap standing up to those who believing they’re being patriotic, but are just committing crimes with the flag as a defence. In some ways, this is Marvel's The Dark Knight. Of all the Marvel movies so far only Iron Man really comes as close to having some darker and more serious themes.
But let’s not get too deep here. Yes, there’s a story here about privacy violations and sacrificing freedom for security that’s timely. But that would get boring quickly. It’s also a great action movie, with a good sense of humour and a spectacular supporting cast.
It works not because of any slavish devotion to a particular comic book storyline (I love The Winter Soldier story arc in the comics, but if you’re expected it up on the big screen, you’ll be disappointed). But they do get to the heart of what makes the character work and the themes the comic book writers were working with and putting it on the big screen. Which is why it works.

Amazing Spider-Man 2, on the other hand…
Look, this is a mess. If there was ever a franchise that you would have thought would have learned lessons about streamlining a story and not having too many villains, it would have been Spider-Man, given what a mess Sam Raimi’s third movie was. And yet, here we go again.
There are too many villains – Rhino (admittedly a small part), Electro, and Goblin. There are too many plots – will Peter and Gwen stay get back together despite his promise to her dying father, will she go to Oxford, what’s going on with Electro, what’s going on with Harry Osborne, what’s the secret of Peter’s parents.
Only the plots with Peter and Gwen are remotely interesting. Jamie Foxx is terrible as Electro. Just twitchy over-acting all over the place. The dude playing Goblin is just meh with the worse hair you will see in any movie this year. The plot with Peter’s parents (well, father. His mom might as well not be in the movie) literally goes nowhere. If it was cut, you would not have missed it, at all.
And really, when you have two leads with as much frightening natural chemistry as Garfield and Stone why are you not putting them on the screen as much as humanly possible? The best scenes in the movie are the two of them – her trying to get out of OsCorp Building and Peter distracting security with a bit straight out of Buster Keaton, and Gwen saving the day and reminding Peter that she is, in fact, a lot smarter than he is.
Stuff like that makes having to deal with the rest of the movie so bloody frustrating.
But here’s the really frustrating thing…geeks and movie people have a hard time realizing that what works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen. A lot of The Winter Soldier comic story, which features the Red Skull, cosmic cubes, a power mad Russian general, would not work on the screen. But they realized it and took the heart of the story, and tweaked it into a story that would work.
I heard that the studio routinely has Marvel comic writers come out to retreats to take a look at the scripts and solicit their opinion. It works.
But this…this feels like it was reviewed by marketers and consultants. I wonder if they had a single Spider-Man writer, like Brian Michael Bendis of Dan Slott, offer their opinions. And then there’s the big story twist…


…that Gwen Stacy dies in Spider-Man’s battle with the Green Goblin. It has to be in the movie because it’s a critical part of Spider-Man lore and I’m sure the marketers thought the geeks would be pissed off.
It’s a terrible Spider-Man story. It really is. It was shocking in the early 70s, but that doesn’t make it good. Stan Lee hated it and thought the writer made a mistake. They basically killed off Gwen because Peter Parker was doing ok at the time – job, university, friends, hot girlfriend – so he needed to suffer and get some character development. So let’s off the girlfriend.
You can almost forgive it given the time it was written, which was the early 70s. Killing a girlfriend to make the male lead suffer and have some character growth…well, what was wrong with that? Today, the writers would be pounced on. They have a term for it in comics…fridging. It comes from an awful Green Lantern story where a villain breaks into a new Green Lantern’s home, kills his girlfriend and stuffs her in the refrigerator.
But in those comics they had years of taking Peter Parker and, yes, making him suffer, but also making his life a bit easier. This was a shot to knock him back. In the comics, over a 10-year period, there is a degree of twisted logic in killing Gwen.
In the space of two movies, Peter Parker’s parents abandon him, are killed (maybe. No bodies = no death) and then he finds out they might have been traitors. His selfish behavior gets his Uncle Ben killed. He indirectly gets Gwen’s father killed during a super-hero fight. So I think Peter was doing good for character defining moments and making sure he has to struggle.
Killing Gwen was stupid in the comics (interestingly, Bendis brought back Gwen in the Ultimate Spider-Man series, where she’s a fantastic character) and really, really stupid in the movie.
I tend to buy comic book movies on blu-ray as a matter of course. I doubt I will buy this one. As frustrating as Man of Steel was, this one is worse. It’s just a mess…

X-Men: Days of Future Past – Speaking of beloved comic book storylines…this one ranks second in X-Men lore only to the Dark Phoenix Saga (both by Chris Claremont and John Byrne). A story featuring Kitty Pride sent back in time from a disastrous future where mutants are hunted and imprisoned by Sentinels to stop the one event that lead to the creation of that future.
Given how it feels like every third movie, and every second comic book, features time travel, it doesn’t seem like much. But in 1982, when the comic came out, it blew minds. The image of Wolverine and Kitty Pryde in front of a wall with posters featuring X-Men who were either dead, captured or still wanted is iconic and been duplicated in dozens of covers since then.
It is a beloved story story (amazingly, only two issues. These days it would be a 12-part storyline with 30 crossover books). So trying to replicate on the big screen is going to push some geek buttons. Thankfully, it works. If The Winter Soldier was trying to aim for a 70s conspiracy thriller vibe, and if the Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a marketing exercise trying to sell toys and launch new movies for Sony to play with, the DofP (I'm not tying that out 20 more times) is, oddly, the most purely straight super hero of the bunch.
Wolverine has to travel back in time to 1973 to prevent a dystopian future where mutants are all but destroyed by mutant hunting Sentinels. Specifically, he needs to stop Mystique from murdering Boliver Trask, the Sentinel program creator, an act that leads to the Sentinel program being kicked into overdrive.
Look, it has the usual X-Men tropes about the majority fearing the minority (in the 60s it was blacks, but it's also been for immigrants, gays, and other groups). But there's a hell of a lot of fun in there. The "Time in a Bottle" scene with Quicksilver in the Pentagon is not only the best two minutes in any X-Men movie, it might be the best two minutes of any movie you'll see this year. It's that much fun. It also has a ton of fun little Easter eggs buried in the movie for comic book geeks (my favourite was Quicksilver casually mentioning a guy his mom used to date).
It also does the time honoured comic book tradition of retcon/rebooting. If you basically think there has been only one good X-Men/Wolverine movie in the past 10 years (First Class) and that X-Men continuity is a mess (it is) then this manages to the neat trick of fixing all of that and relaunching the franchise. If you hated X-Men: The Last Stand and think Brett Ratner is the anti-Christ, then you're really going to love this movie.
On top of that, it has parts or cameos by pretty much everyone who has ever been in the X-Men movies, great action sequences and good acting. Really, if the X-Men movies have been fortunate in anything, it's that they've managed to get some of the very best actors in the business to come in their playground.
There are still a few more comic book movies coming out this year. There's Guardians of the Galaxy (no clue), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (bad feeling), Transformers (almost certainly awful) and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (bad feeling), but it's going to be hard to top DofP and The Winter Soldier. Which is fine. I just hope they're not as bad as the last Spider-Man.
Last Five
1. Hitsville, U.K. - The Clash
2. Laurel - Goldfrapp
3. Don't know nothing - Maroon 5
4. Goddess on the prairie - Hot Hot Heat
5. Tower of song (live) - Leonard Cohen*

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